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Black Friday, anyone? The backstory of cultural imports

Monday December 2 2019

Black Friday

Shoppers buy TV sets at a supermarket during a Black Friday sale in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on November 28, 2019. In 2018, US citizens spent $6.2 billion (Sh637.98 billion) on Black Friday, with two billion of this being generated from smartphones. PHOTO | MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL | AFP 

DELFHIN MUGO
By DELFHIN MUGO
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“Kenya’s Biggest Black Friday”, “Black Friday Sale Starts Now!”, “Black Friday Never Ends!”, “Everything Up To Half Price” – so declared the many adverts on TV, newspapers and banners on major websites.

The message was similar on strategic billboards in the run up to ‘Black Friday’.

From food items, furniture to tiles and shoes, at least five companies put up Black Friday adverts in the Nation alone last Thursday, including South African outlet Shoprite, CTM, House of Leather, Bata, and Ashley Furniture Home Store.

While most of these retailers were offering a one-off highly-discounted shopping experience, Jumia Kenya, an online store that credits itself for having popularised the online ‘Black Friday’ phenomenon, kicked off their promotions early in November, running it for four consecutive Fridays, hoping to lure shoppers to start to peruse the web for TV, phones and electronics in earnest, as Kenyans ease in into the December festivities.

“Thank you for your interest in participating in our biggest sale of the season. The discount could go as low as one per cent and as high as 80 per cent depending on the product. It is bigger and has more amazing deals which you can enjoy ranging from groceries, TVs, phones, appliances, fashion and electronics,” a sales representative of the online store told DN2 in a live chat on the online store’s website hours to the Black Friday.

THANKSGIVING DAY

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But perhaps the fact that Jumia has been running the famous sales weekends for a whole month for seasons now could be an indication that the company does cash in on this season.

It could also be an indication of how deeply-rooted this American retail shopping culture has gotten in the country.

According to the company, more than 10 million products were up for grabs this time round.

Shopping on Black Friday is a decades old tradition for many American families, coming right after the popular Thanksgiving ceremony.

In the US, Thanksgiving Day is an annual national holiday commemorating a harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrim Fathers in 1621, and is held on the fourth Thursday in November. This year, the event took place on Thursday, November, 28.

It is one of the biggest events in the American calendar, used by many people to reflect on the positive things in life and spend time with their families.

The highlight is usually the Thanksgiving dinner, which features a traditional meal of roast turkey.

But right after the dinner, in the wee hours of Friday, reports indicate that shop owners would walk into and open the doors to their stores, thereby kicking off the Black Friday shopping frenzy that is now popular across the world.

LEARN YOUR HISTORY

From Russia to France to China, and now Nairobi, Black Friday phenomenon has spread like wildfire, so much so that it has been termed as the newest American export.

"Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the two highest days of sales that we see from all the way around the world,” Borderfree CEO Michael DeSimone told CNBC in an article titled "New American export: Black Friday".

Borderfree is a company that works with several leading American retailers to convert their websites to country-appropriate language and currency translations.

That is besides helping collect taxes and tariffs and facilitating in shipping the merchandise across the seas.

“In the Middle East, much of the population doesn’t even celebrate Christmas, but they are still shopping on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, so I think it’s an interesting way that we have sort of exported our American retail culture,” DeSimone said.

Yet across the globe, many people are unaware of the phenomenon's history and are clueless about the use of the name before it became associated with the pre-Christmas shopping craze – this does not, however, seem to stop them from marking the day.

So just how did Black Friday come about? Contrary to what most people know, the term Black Friday was actually first associated with financial crisis, specifically the crash of the US gold market on September 24, 1869.

MARKET CRASH

It has nothing to do with holiday shopping. Two notoriously ruthless Wall Street financiers -Jim Fisk and Jay Gould - together bought as much as they could of the US gold in the hope that they would drive the overall price through the roof and make a killing on sale.

That did not happen, and on that fateful Friday, the conspiracy was revealed, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers.

That is what would later be referred to as "Black Friday", in reference to the US gold market crash and the bankruptcy it brought in its wake.

But there are also tales that attempt to explain the origin and coining of the word Black Friday.

For instance, a story is told about how long time ago shops in the US used to record their accounting details by hand, they noted profits in black and losses in red.

It is said that many shops were "in the red" throughout most of the year but they later "went into the black" the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers blew so much money on discounted merchandise.

There has also been a dark story that emerged in most recent years, one that black people would rather forget.

Though largely discounted as ‘an inaccurate rumour’, the tale suggests that in the 1800s, Southern plantation owners could buy slaves at a discounted price following Thanksgiving, a myth that has seen some call for a boycott of the retail holiday.

BLACK FRIDAY

But just who coined the name Black Friday? According to media reports, police officers in Philadelphia, US, were the first to link Black Friday to the post-Thanksgiving period in the 1950s.

At the time, large crowds of tourists and shoppers would come to the city to watch a football game between the army and the navy the day after Thanksgiving, creating chaos, traffic jams and shoplifting opportunities.

As fate would have it, British newspaper The Telegraph reports, police officers in the city weren't able to take the day off work and instead had to work long shifts to control the crowds, thus using the term Black Friday to refer to it.

“As the name spread throughout Philadelphia, some of the city's merchants and boosters disliked the negative connotations and unsuccessfully tried to change it to Big Friday,” read the media report.

Black Friday later became known in print, after an advertisement was published in The American Philatelist magazine in 1966.

By the late 1980s, the term was commonly known across the nation and retailers soon linked it to their post-Thanksgiving sales, according to the article.

Today, Black Friday is the US's biggest shopping event of the year and arguably the biggest US-imported sales frenzy, when many shops slash their prices on a range of products to boost profits and officially kick off the festive season.

Despite the widespread entrenchment though, the phenomenon has come under heavy criticism, with most decrying the fact that it carries little to no meaning to people outside the US.

WASTE PROBLEM

Noting that culture is something that is generally enjoyed by everybody, John Ng’ang’a, a consultant Clinical Psychologist and lecturer in the department of Social and Development Studies at the Technical University of Kenya, looks at Black Friday as more of a commercial venture than a cultural exchange.

“It is more commercial than cultural and it is targeted to influence a certain mode of behaviour," he says.

Across the world, environmental conscious critics have also expressed concerns about overproduction, wastage and the environmental impact that comes with the sales frenzy.

In France, for instance, French MPs have proposed an anti-waste bill that seeks to crack down on waste and encourage recycling.

And the calls for curbs on Black Friday spending are growing not just in France, and it is easy to see why.

According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an international organisation, one truck of textiles is landfilled and incinerated every second as a result of Black Friday weekend.

This is because Black Friday has become one of the major peaks of consumerism and thus the shopping binge generates greater volumes of waste than ever.

How so? Yet another reason that has led to the ban suggestion in France is false advertising of discounts.

“In addition to its disastrous environmental record, [Black Friday] is based on misleading communications to consumers, allowing them to believe that they are benefiting from considerable price reductions,” the French legislators said.

PRICE TRICK

Their assertions are supported by a 2016 study by French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir that found that the true average Black Friday price reduction was less than two per cent.

Just last week, a consumer group in the UK - Which? - published research showing that only four of 83 products it tracked were cheaper on Black Friday promotion than in the six months before or after.

Local retailers contacted from comment by DN2 did not respond to our questions.

For instance, Jumia’s 80 per cent discount would appear too good to be true and we were curious to know how many items were offer at that rate.

Attempt to establish what determines the discount rate from local retailers were also fruitless as so is their response to critics who think they are importing and forcing foreign cultures on locals.

What is Halloween? The facts behind this scary night. Other than Black Friday, Halloween is yet another US-imported culture that has caught on in most parts of the world, including Kenya.

Now observed worldwide, Halloween is believed to be the one night of the year when the barriers between the living and the dead break down and allow spirits to pass through and wreak havoc on the night.

HALLOWEEN

The customs of Halloween go back centuries and are deeply-steeped in religion and tradition.

According to the BBC, Halloween began as the festival of Samhain, marked at the beginning of November by Celts, who were pagans.

It was part of the ancient Celtic religion in Britain and other parts of Europe, according to the BBC.

For some reason, the Celts thought the barrier between our world and the world of ghosts and spirits got really thin, something that meant weird creatures with strange powers could wander about on Earth.

“The Celts had a big party. It was all about scaring away the ghosts and spirits,” the BBC writes.

“Later, with the Christian religion, the day became known as All Hallows' Eve - the day before All Saints' Day on 1 November.”

But it is in America that Halloween has really taken off, with Irish immigrants to the United States being credited for raising the popularity of Halloween during the 19th century.

According to the Financial Times, the French people are expected to spend a record €5.9bn (Sh668.142 billion) this year, an increase of four per cent.

REVENUE

In 2018, US citizens spent $6.2 billion (Sh637.98 billion) on Black Friday, with two billion of this being generated from smartphones.

This is according to an analysis by Adobe Analytics of 80 of the top 100 US online retailers.

According to IMRG, £1.49 billion (Sh197.822 billion) was spent on UK online retail sites on Black Friday 2018, while Retail Week found 194 million visits were made to UK shopping pages on November 23 last year.

Black Friday is the world's second biggest shopping day, trailing only China's Singles day. Oop! Looks like there are more single people in China than there are Black Friday buyers out here.

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